The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now a “priority” for the US, attorney general Jeff Sessions has said.
Hours later it was reported by CNN that authorities have prepared charges against Assange, who is currently holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Donald Trump lavished praise on the anti-secrecy website during the presidential election campaign - “I love WikiLeaks,” he once told a rally - but his administration has struck a different tone.
Asked whether it was a priority for the justice department to arrest Assange “once and for all”, Sessions told a press conference in El Paso, Texas on Thursday: “We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks. This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious.”
He added: “So yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”
Citing unnamed officials, CNN reported that prosecutors have struggled with whether the Australian is protected from prosecution from the first amendment, but now believe they have found a path forward. A spokesman for the justice department declined to comment.
Barry Pollack, Assange’s lawyer, denied any knowledge of imminent prosecution. “We’ve had no communication with the Department of Justice and they have not indicated to me that they have brought any charges against Mr Assange,” he told CNN. “They’ve been unwilling to have any discussion at all, despite our repeated requests, that they let us know what Mr Assange’s status is in any pending investigations. There’s no reason why Wikileaks should be treated differently from any other publisher.”
US authorities has been investigating Assange and WikiLeaks since at least 2010 when it released, in cooperation with publications including the Guardian, more than a quarter of a million classified cables from US embassies leaked by US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
Republican politicians expressed fury at the time, accusing Assange of treason, and Trump himself told an interviewer: “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like death penalty or something.”
All that changed during the election when WikiLeaks published emails acquired via Russian-backed hackers from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump and his associates seized on the revelations, citing them with relish during speeches, prompting accusations of cynical opportunism.
Now in power, their attitude seems to have reverted to Republican orthodoxy. In a speech last week in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said: “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
He added: “Julian Assange has no first amendment freedoms. He’s sitting in an embassy in London. He’s not a US citizen.”
But US authorities cannot touch Assange while he remains in the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain, seeking to avoid an arrest warrant on rape allegations in Sweden. Socialist candidate Lenin Moreno, who won the recent election in Ecuador, has promised not to extradite Assange.